What Charles Manson Teaches Us About Terror

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Charles Manson
Charles Manson (Photo: Video screenshot)

Charles Manson is dead at 83. The seven murders he inspired and orchestrated in 1969 and the race war he tried to incite gripped the American psyche both at the time and in the intervening years.

You can read about the details of his shocking crimes quite easily elsewhere. What we’re focusing on here is what we can learn from his story when it comes to understanding radical Islam.


1.Myth Matters More Than Reality

In terms of body count, Manson does not rank. It was the aesthetic of his crimes that captured the national imagination and caused people to fixate on him. His story was capitivating because his followers murdered beautiful celebrities, listened to hip music and were on the cutting edge of pop culture at the time.

Manson’s ability to craft a cool image that drew in followers is what gave him the power to inspire them to commit horrible crimes.

So too with Islamism, the ideology draws its power from a compelling narrative which posits that Muslims are currently in a degraded state as a result of Western oppression, but can restore their glorious past through sacrifice and great deeds.

You may think these narratives are being sold in spite of their bloodthirsty nature. In fact the opposite is more likely true…


2.Violent Revolution is an Extremely Compelling Narrative

The young people who were drawn into Manson’s web were sold a narrative of a coming race war between black people and white people in which black people would overthrow their oppressors. This war, Manson reasoned, would devastate America and enable him to take over and rule over the shattered remnants of civilization.

Apocalyptic cults almost always find followers. The narrative of ultraviolence as a solution to life’s woes appeals to a deeply embedded dark side of human nature. Scientists believe humans are naturally significantly more violent to those of their own species than the average mammal, significantly surpassing that of even ferocious predators such as tigers.

An appeal to a wave of bloodshed has been successful many times in history. The French Revolution and Russian Revolution unified millions on a platform of slaughtering the rich.

Islamism has the same basic appeal; when faced with frustration, ultraviolence appeals as a solution.


3.Mass Murderers Gain Power Because We Make Them Celebrities

Charles Manson continued to capture the popular imagination of America long after his arrest. He became extremely famous. He has had books, a play, TV shows and movies made about him. Presumably there will be more.

Similarly, the Rolling Stone’s cover photo of Boston Marathon bombing bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev elicited excited attention by portraying him a rock star.

One of the murderers in the Manson family bragged they did it, “because we wanted to do a crime that would shock the world.”

ISIS and other terrorist groups also seek fame through the shock value of extreme and heinous violence and terror it elicits. Glamorizing crime and violence increases the incentive groups have to perpetrate heinous crimes like that of Charlie Manson.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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